By Charles F. Conner It is rare to see bipartisanship in Washington lately, but problems from state efforts to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are bringing Democrats, Republicans and a wide range of groups together around a national solution to preserve our national food system and prevent a spike in grocery bills.
That national solution is the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which was approved Tuesday by the House Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support. Thanks to strong backing from both Republicans and Democrats on the committee and from a broad-based coalition, this common-sense legislation is now headed to the House floor where it should receive attention before the August recess.
For years, certain groups have used fear and falsehood to demonize food as part of a campaign to drive it out of the marketplace.
GMOs have been around for decades, helping farmers to grow more crops more sustainably--using fewer pesticides and protecting the land and water. And despite the scare tactics of alarmists, the fact is that scientists, including all major global health organizations and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have concluded that GMOs are as safe as any other food.
Yet activists continue to prey on consumer fears, and are pushing state laws mandating that foods containing GM ingredients be specially labeled.
These activists have already been successful in Vermont, where a GMO labeling law will go into effect next July. They continue to push for similar measures in many other states. One major problem with this state-by-state approach is that each state proposal is unique, with its own standards and a wide array of exemptions for certain GM products such as meat, gum, milk, juice, cheese, and alcohol.
The impact of this is huge: farmers and manufacturers would have to grow, create, package and transport products uniquely for each state.
Establishing a 50-state patchwork approach to food labeling would put new, costly burdens on American farmers and manufacturers and will increase the price of groceries. A study by a Cornell University professor found that state GMO labeling mandates would increase grocery costs for a family of four by as much as $500 per year.
The best way to protect our national food system is to implement a federal policy that provides American consumers with accurate, science-based information while providing consistent national standards for farmers and manufacturers. The bipartisan Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act would preserve the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s role and responsibilities in overseeing our national food labeling standards. It would also create a nationally standardized voluntary certification program, similar to the U.S. Organics Program for non-GM food overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sponsored by Representatives Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act has garnered nearly 70 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle representing a vast regional and ideological diversity. In addition, more than 400 organizations across all 50 states have signed a letter encouraging Congress to move forward with the bill.
This broad, diverse support reflects the danger facing our food supply, our farmers and the American consumer. With 70 to 80 percent of the products in our grocery stores containing GMOs, inconsistent state labeling laws will disrupt interstate commerce and leave consumers more confused than ever, not to mention dramatically increase prices at the checkout counter.
The government’s role in food labeling is to ensure that consumers receive accurate information about nutrition, health and safety. None of these concerns are at stake with GMO foods. The broad coalition coalescing around this issue is indicative that GMO labeling – not GMOs – represent the real danger to America’s food supply.
Congress should continue to move forward in a bipartisan way to pass this critically needed legislation this year.
Charles F. Conner is a former United States deputy secretary of Agriculture and is currently president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.